I’ve been silently watching the ‘Black Swan’ acclaim in befuddlement, and so was happy to receive this email from SF Chronicle reader James Pendergast, who shares an insightful review by his stepson Kurt Ackridge. (I requested permission from both James and Kurt to reprint.):

“Dear Ms. Howard,

May I ask your opinion of “Black Swan”? I was a little surprised that Mick LaSalle included it in his top ten movies list, considering all the flaws he perceived in it.

Having formerly been married to a woman who was invited to join the Paris Opera Ballet when she was a teenager, and who had a cousin with the San Francisco Ballet, I received the impression that there are very few freak-outs in the ballet world, perhaps because the dancers love what they are doing; they are extremely dedicated and disciplined; some regard dance as their spiritual practice; and all the exercise may help to promote stability.

I no longer know any ballerinas whose opinion I could solicit, and since I have found your reviews quite estimable, it occurred to me to request your reaction.

My stepson, who loves both ballet and movies, sent me his review of the film:

I saw Mick LaSalle’s review of “Black Swan” and then went to see it today. His comments, I thought, were good but it was a bit of an understatement to say that it could have been done better by someone like Jane Campion, say. Natalie Portman can act, how she can act, I discovered. It’s just too bad, the script was cliched, sophomoric, predictable, and implausible to say the least.
I would say it’s a very well done bad movie. It starts off as a reasonably serious film about real people and then merges into a kind of psycho-drama which turns out to be less of a movie about dance than about a very disturbed little girl trapped in a woman’s body, and then, finally, it morphs, unexpectedly into an almost campy horror movie, where neither the protagonist nor the audience can tell the difference between fantasy and reality for a while. This kind of ambiguity about what the film is trying to be turns it into a kind of joke, ultimately.

Too bad. Everyone is good in it. But, the director, editors, and scriptwriter(s) all seem to see the characters in it as caricatures, while the actors do the best the can with what they have to work with. If those making the film had been interested in making a movie about real people, as LaSalle hints, what a film this could have been. But, without huge changes in the script this would not have been possible. ”

My response to James and Kurt:

“Hi James, and thanks for your nice words about my reviews.  I think your stepson could have a good career in criticism ahead of him, not only because I happen to agree with him, but because he is so precise about the wrong turns this film takes.  I thought “Black Swan” was a joke.  As your stepson says, it starts out serious and turns completely campy.  I saw the film alone in a full Berkeley theater on a Saturday night.  At all the most dramatic moments, the whole audience was laughing, and I with them, because the scenarios were so over-the-top.  Yet when the lights went up, everyone became serious again, turned to their dates and said things like, “Very thought-provoking, wasn’t it?”  I wanted to turn to the strangers and say, we did just sit in the dark together laughing for two hours, right?

Your impressions of dancers’ discipline and mental soundness are in sync with my own knowledge of real dancers’ lives.  I also think the ballet world’s reality is so fascinating that I prefer great documentaries about it.  I’m thinking especially of Frederick Weisman’s recent “La Danse,” to me more psychologically (and additionally, sociologically) absorbing than anything in “Black Swan.” “

With great respect to Mick LaSalle, thanks James and Kurt for making me feel less lonely than I did in that Berkeley movie theater, when the lights went up and the laughter turned to fake hushed reverence.

UPDATE: See further thoughts from Kurt under comments below.

And: Janice Berman nails it (in colorful language, full warning). Then concludes:

The astounding thing is how complicit the dance community has been in its own exploitation and trashing via “The Black Swan,” now trumpeted as a best-picture Oscar contender. But maybe not. Maybe the aforementioned excesses committed by but more often against dancers in the name of ballet have now come home to roost and we have a rising choreographer like Benjamin Millepied taking part in this charade that has nothing to do with the art form, and ballerinas like Wendy Whelan extolling the film’s virtues, and Natalie Portman (also nominated, for best actress), who professes a love for dance, doing tremendous violence not only to the art of ballet but to her own considerable gifts.

4 Comments

  • Kurt Ackridge Posted January 3, 2011 3:27 pm

    Rachel:

    Thanks for posting my little review about this movie in the body of your text here. I truly appreciate your comment about a possible career in criticism.

    After reading about your own reactions to the film I had a thought about the “fake hushed reverence” you refer to. I believe that the ending is so super-serious, in a way that was perhaps unexpected, that even those who laughed might have felt taken off guard, as if afraid to feel they might not have understood what was truly happening. After all, the Portman character was supposed to be hallucinating, wasn’t she? Perhaps some people all of sudden felt they had missed the point of something. Perhaps they weren’t supposed to care about what was real and what wasn’t? Yet, if the film had succeeded there wouldn’t be these kinds of questions. Given all the action leading up to the ending it seems that the last scene should have been obvious in its resolution

  • Kurt Ackridge Posted January 5, 2011 3:42 pm

    Here is a link to a review, just out today, by Matthew Lucas, a university student, for a news source in North Carolina, that seems to give insight into a lot of the hype surrounding “Black Swan”: http://www.the-dispatch.com/article/20110105/living/101054015&tc=yahoo?p=2&tc=pg
    I understand only too well that if I were a much younger man, in my early twenties say,that I, too, would be ready to embrace all of the flaws in this film and see them as some part of a brilliant ‘Grand Design’ that would hold me under the spell of its phantasmagoria.

  • Ian Jones Posted January 15, 2011 6:19 pm

    The Black Swan is one dumb,overly hyped movie.Natalie Portman’s facial expressions throughout the movie made me sick.Good thing i didn’t pay to see this total waste of time and piece of crap.If she’s nominated for an Academy Award this year i will not watch the awards.

  • Richard Gilbert Posted January 16, 2011 2:14 pm

    Rachel,

    Thank you for posting this. I love Natalie Portman but felt the movie was an excuse to make a horror film. It therefore did not emotionally involve me as much I felt it might have. The story itself, while movie-esque, is not so far-fetched as to be totally unbelievable to me, but instead of it being a character study of a talented but fragile woman it somehow withheld too much in order to hype the climax and to mislead me about her.

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